Baca saw his daughter growing up, slipping out of his hands. He wanted her to succeed more than he wanted his corporate career. "I just gave it up," Baca says.

He called on his old friends and was given the basement of Lodge No. 17 (now relocated to 26th Avenue and Alcott Street), where he started Amorena's training in December 2001. "It was my daughter and I and a medicine ball," Baca remembers. Still, from those humble beginnings, he built a team.

Then, in December 2004, he heard of an opening for a boxing coach at the legendary 20th Street Gym. He applied and got the job.

The members of the Mondragon family — Shon Sr., Ariel, Shon Jr. and Cassandra — have boxing in their blood.
Anthony Camera
The members of the Mondragon family — Shon Sr., Ariel, Shon Jr. and Cassandra — have boxing in their blood.
Coach Robert Baca.
Anthony Camera
Coach Robert Baca.


By then, the 20th Street Boxing program was more than sixty years old; students of all ages and economic backgrounds had been training at the modest facility in the heart of downtown.

"Boxing is a poor man's sport," says DaVarryl Williamson, a national heavyweight champion who lives in Aurora and is a strong supporter of 20th Street. But rich or poor, anyone could learn to fight at 20th Street; no prior training was required. "20th Street Gym is like the Brown Palace," says Williamson, "except they host presidents and we have boxers."

Under Baca, the program was free to any child under the age of seventeen with a Parks and Rec membership. And that rec pass was also free for Denver kids under the MyDenver program, which currently gives them access to 26 rec centers and 29 pools. But the rest of the rules are changing, as is the part of Denver where the 20th Street Recreation Center is located.

It's been more than a decade since the "House of Pain" sign hung over the door to 20th Street's boxing gym. As more upscale residents started moving downtown, the clientele of this recreation center shifted, and its focus has altered. A recent two-week renovation removed the regional-championship banners that used to hang from the rafters. Also gone are action shots of Shon Mondragon and other students in the boxing program that had been tacked to a bulletin board alongside cut-out newspaper articles about 20th Street's boxing legacy and updates on the program's local and national rankings. An elevated ring still sits in the center of the room, with wall mounts for two speed bags on one side, a heavy bag and a lighter bag hanging from the ceiling, and a painted scene of two boxers mid-match on the back wall. It's clear that this was once a boxer's gym — but these days, the city promotes the boxing fitness classes at 20th Street rather than the boxing program.

As Erin Brown, deputy manager of Parks and Recreation, explains: "We looked at everything in our system to see, does it fit? If it doesn't fit there, where is our niche? Who is offering it? Boxing is one of those things that isn't a niche for Parks and Rec, so we had someone offering it. Then we recognized that we have these partners, so we have to look at what the rules look like, and they vary all across the board. We had to clean up across our system — we didn't just single out boxing."

But nothing else in the Parks and Rec system has the boxing program's knockout reputation.


When Baca's program had to leave 20th Street this fall, the Colorado Golden Gloves Charities Gym in Wheat Ridge opened its doors to the team. That accommodation speaks volumes about the sportsmanlike conduct of this game. In the ring, the action may look barbaric, but both inside and outside of the ropes, everyone is treated with respect.

Golden Gloves of America was started in 1928 as a way for amateur boxers to compete nationally. The organization was key in pushing the popularity of the sport, giving amateur fighters around the country a platform from which they could rise to the world's stage. The Colorado branch of Golden Gloves was established in 1944 and started fielding teams of amateur fighters ranging in age from sixteen to sixty. Though today there are nowhere near the number of competitors coming out of the amateur circuit that there were decades ago, organizations like Golden Gloves are helping to keep the sport alive.

One warm Saturday this fall, competitors from all over Colorado, as well as nearby states such as Wyoming and Kansas, converge on the Golden Gloves boxing gym in Wheat Ridge for a "local show," a full day of matches. Boys and girls as young as eight years old will go head-to-head with competitors matching them in age and weight class. Adults, too, are part of this amateur circuit; although the sport of boxing doesn't have nearly the clout that it did four decades ago, it still supports a strong community that observes all the traditions.

As each set of boxers enters the ring, the fighters greet one another face-to-face. Some even cross over to the opposing corner to introduce themselves to a competitor's coach, or walk the perimeter of the roped-off stage to say hello to the judges who will be calling the match. Judges sit on all four sides of the ring, wearing white-collared shirts and holding pens and paper.

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